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Skylight's Wonderfully Expressive, Musical 'Beast'

Mar. 21, 2017
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Photo credit: Mark Frohna

Local opera lovers need to make it to the richly charming Skylight Music Theatre production of what is titled Beauty and the Beast, an adaptation of the André Grétry 1771 opera Zémire et Azor. Everything about it deserves praise and attention. It couldn’t have been a coincidence that this production opened the same day as the big new Disney Beauty and the Beast.

Director and designer James Ortiz’s central concept is the heart of the show: a giant puppet as Azor (the Beast) operated by four puppeteers, voiced by a tenor to the side in half-light. This works marvelously well. Azor’s large puppet face is expressive, with a moving mouth and outsized ears, as are his huge, trunk legs and elephant-like toes. It’s easy to get caught up in the character’s plight. The puppeteers create constant, intricate movements. Alex Mace’s operation of Azor’s head and face deserves special mention.

The piece is a combination of opera, spoken dialogue and dance/mime, and also a mix of comedy and melodrama. Grétry’s score serves its purpose elegantly. Ortiz’s taste and direction in telling the story is most impressive, sharply drawing the characters and creating an ever-present emotional progression to the inevitable happy ending. 

As Zémire (Beauty), soprano Gillian Hollis is as earnest, idealistic and pure as a Disney heroine. She negotiated the challenging role with relative ease, with an attractive voice that has color in its light core. Chaz’men Williams-Ali was well cast as Azor. His lyric tenor voice has presence and texture, but responded very well to music that took him through fast moving sections and extremely high notes.

Eric McKeever, as Zémire’s father, sang sturdily and with wonderful use of words. His servant Ali was colorfully portrayed by character tenor Nicholas Nestorak, who got most of the broad comedy of the evening. He got genuine laughs, especially turning a descent down a staircase into a star comic moment. 

Zémire’s materialistic sisters were played with relish by Erin Sura and Sarah Thompson Johansen. Conductor and Music Director Shari Rhoads had a knack for finding just the right tempos, and infused the small orchestra with some appropriate period style.

Skylight’s Beauty and the Beast runs through March 26 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. For tickets, call 414-291-7800 or visit skylightmusictheatre.org.

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